Second Star to the Right: Talking to Andrew Kolb, the Creator of Neverland


30 March 2021
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Neverland, a Peter Pan inspired RPG

Words by Christopher John Eggett   Artwork reprinted with permission from Neverland by Andrew Kolb, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2020

“I just wanted to spend time in Neverland and asked myself ‘how do I make this fun to run?’,” says Andrew Kolb, the designer and illustrator of a very handsome new adventure, set in the world of Peter Pan, published by Andrew McMeel. It started like many of these projects, and indeed, as every Neverland does – by being projected in someone’s mind.

Neverland is a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition compatible hexcrawl through the world of Peter Pan, or at least, a version of it. Based on a mix of the J M Barrie book and silver screen and filmic adaptations, the island of Neverland is a kind of open sandbox for anyone who wants to dive in. If you’re ready to never grow up, well, you know the way.

THE BOY WHO NEVER GREW UP

The hook of Neverland is the world of pure invention that the setting offers. Kolb expands our view of the island.

“I’ve tried to approach the setting as an open-ended adventure. For the veterans, this looks like a sandbox using a hexcrawl mechanic as the foundation for exploration. For those that don’t know what any of that means, Neverland is broken up into 24 different areas that are full of characters to encounter, locations to explore, and secrets to find,” says Kolb, “there isn’t any one singular story and the spirit of the book is adventuring and getting into mischief. Want to align yourself with the Pirates? Sure! There’s no right or wrong answer, just consequences to actions.”

It’s a world that allows for morality in its adventures, but only if you want it. A few of the pre-generated characters, Big Game Hunter, Holy Orphan, Child Pickpocket and Parent Raconteur for example, give you a flavour of the place and how you’re meant to interact with it. We’re not all children spirited away to meet the lost boys, far from it.

What were Kolb’s goals in making this game? 

“I love TTRPGs and have purchased, run, and dissected endless adventures. And one thing I found lacking was a world that could appeal to kids and adults,” he says, “all-ages tends to mean no danger or scary bits, and that didn’t feel right. I wanted a setting that could oscillate between silly and dangerous depending on the energy of the table and I find it’s a quality that fairy tales and older stories have.”

“I’m relatively new to the scene and started with Fifth Edition. Because of this, I think there’s a lot of cinematic influences. The nature of the Pirates can’t help but be inspired by the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, as an example. But to counter that, when I run games I have a lot of trouble if I try to memorize a specific plot; that’s where the OSR (Old School Revival) comes into play,” continues Kolb, “to me, a lot of what I love about the OSR is player-driven and I find when I run a reactive game that responds to player choices, I know what moves to make and how to proceed. Overall, I think that gentle allusions to pop culture and a system that nurtures player agency makes a setting a little more accessible to those who haven’t played TTRPGs before.”

The game is highly accessible simply because of its subject, but with any ‘adaptation’ there’s going to be the assumption of playing the ‘title’ character. That’s not the case here, as hinted at above. Instead, we have a flexible system of outlandish characters with motivations that fit the world, even if they’re not directly ‘from’ the pages of the novel or the silver screen.

“I’ve included some pre-generated characters and a bunch of adventure hooks but my hope is that Neverland is flexible enough to compliment any sort of adventuring party. Group of marauding pirates? Great! Bunch of school kids who survived a plane crash and washed ashore? Very literary! Goblins stowed away in barrels and wound up here? Sign me up!” says Kolb excitedly, “my suggestion is to read through the book and see what feels right for you. It’s also flexible enough in structure that you could use any number of systems to run the adventure so that might also make some decisions for you. Or tell the players they’re going to Neverland and see what they say – my current group is a mixed bag of ancestries but one player wanted to play a Pixie and it’s added a layer to the game I hadn’t imagined. Every Neverland is unique after all.”

It’s a little like 2020’s Labyrinth Adventure Game in that because the world has the quality of childhood about it, it puts very direct demands and motivations for the player into the characters. While in Labyrinth players are asked what they have lost, or rather what has been taken by the Goblin King, such as a little brother. Here characters are encouraged to have something missing, whether a child, a mentor, parents, or a pirate crew. 

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A LIVING ISLAND

Every Neverland is different, as the books say. And perception is everything. This childish imagination, tied up with the mechanics of the hexcrawl, makes for a location that seems truly alive. Naturally that all start with the ticking croc.

“With a hexcrawl, time management is super important. It takes four hours to move from hex to hex, or to explore the hex you’re in. But what’s the point of having this rigid time structure if there isn’t any reason for it? That’s why there are components that happen at all measurements of time,” explains Kolb, “having events and characters tied to hours, days, or weeks means players need to think about where they are and ‘when they are’ too. For the GM, this means keeping track of time in four hour chunks. I’ve included a few charts for easy reference, but totally understand that it takes a bit of adjustment.

“The creatures of the island play a big role. I tried to ensure there was a full food chain that made sense and that meant a mix of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores at various sizes. This, coupled with random tables that limit certain creatures to certain areas, should teach the players that if they’re looking for something then they should go to a specific area,” Kolb continues, “you won’t find some creatures in the swamp and other creatures are only found in the swamp. I’m a broken record, but what this is trying to nurture is player engagement and agency. I’ve never telegraphed to my players where certain creatures are found but if they’re paying attention and taking notes, they’ll get a feel for the environment and that sort of immersion is so much more rewarding.”

Naturally, there are drawback as well as advantages to using a ‘known’ setting when it comes to playing an adventure. 

“I think this is where I could argue that using an existing locale can both help and hinder. For those who have a clear impression of Neverland, I’m going to have trouble breaking through what they’ve established if my interpretation is different,” says Kolb, “On the other hand, I’ve tried to keep enough of the mainstays – mermaids, pirates, fairies – present and prominent so that it feels like what you expect from the setting.”

“Themes can lead a roleplaying game. And if the setting reinforces the theme, then you’re going to be that much more successful in creating a cohesive experience. Because exploration is a major touchstone to Neverland, I wanted to make sure the island rewards exploration: lots of secrets and hidden reveals and dense jungle just feels right for the setting. If your themes are isolation and fear, maybe a space station would work well? Or if it’s about romance and danger, then a gothic castle feels right. I’d argue that tropes can be used as an early building block for an adventure. Then you can add nuance and surprise from there.”

KILL YOUR DARLINGS

Threats in the game are detailed extensively in the book through the various creatures and peoples of the island. After all, the food chain that Kolb mentioned does include the players in some way. However, nothing really needs to be your enemy unless you make it so.

“The threats are a result of the choices the players make along the way. Aligning with the Pirates will result in a very different adventure compared to the Mermaids or the Lost Boys,” says Kolb, “then there’s the wildlife and the natural dangers of the island – floods, fires and so on. And there are giant creatures, powerful spellcasters, and deadly traps all over the place – but one group’s enemy might be another group’s ally.”

To run the game then is really a classic OSR-style ‘referee’ system, rather than one of narrative driven by the GM.
We asked Kolb about the reception and feedback to the game.

“I think more stories will feed back after everyone gets more comfortable with the environment. It wasn’t until three or four months of exploring that my players introduced the residents of Neverland to hotdogs – during a sporting event – and that one is still making waves across the island.”

Those who want to play the game will be pleased that while the game has a “5e compatible” roundel on the front, it was designed to be played with any system.  

“I’m learning about so many systems because of this! B/X and white hack have come up a few times, as well as Five Torches Deep,” says Kolb of what he’s heard Neverland being adapted to, “some others I’ve seen mentioned include the mechanics from Troika!, Electric Bastionland, Forbidden Lands, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch.”

“The reception has been so kind and generous that I can’t put it into words. I really appreciate this community and how receptive it’s been to someone who took a risk and just came out of nowhere.”

Neverland might appeal to a lot of GMs who want younger players to get involved. While the game isn’t entirely aimed at children, there are mechanics that work with mixed age groups naturally.

“In-game children get different advantages on the island but real world children get no such help. I’m an unsympathetic GM who never bends. I am, of course, kidding,” laughs Kolb, “I think adapting it for children doesn’t take a lot. The system you use might be the biggest hurdle as Fifth Edition characters sheets can be overwhelming at the best of times.”

“Other than that, it’ll be up to the GM on how they handle death but that can also be waved away with fairy magic, if they choose. The Hexcrawl shares a lot with board games, in that there are clear ‘spaces’ with each hex and you could use a token to show where the players are. I suppose I’m suggesting as many visuals as possible but that’s not a fair reflection on children; teens and adults respond well to visuals too or miniature painting wouldn’t exist. What I’m saying is that running Neverland for kids simply requires an understanding of the players and determining what they’re comfortable with before starting the adventure. But I can’t stress this enough: this is good practice for any GM with any age group.”

“Remember the goal is to have fun. This may look different for each player but as long as one player’s fun isn’t squashing another’s, let them enjoy what they enjoy,” continues Kolb, “to that last point, my players love adopting pets. Any creature small enough to stuff in a pocket that can’t immediately kill them will become their pet. Is this what I have in mind? No. But do I encourage it? Absolutely. I’ve centred whole adventures around rescuing said pets or discovering that a pet is actually a very different creature. Though now I’m realizing I’ve really rewarded their habits and I’m sure each new pet is adopted with the expectation that it secretly barfs enchanted hairballs or something. Anyway, my tip is to be a kind and considerate human being.” 

WHAT IS A HEXCRAWL?

A hexcrawl is a way of roleplaying games to present a ‘map’ to players to explore. Presented as a grid of hexes overlaid on a map, players can choose any direction of travel. Gamemasters can set quests in far flung locations and have the fun of ‘getting there’ (or not) as the meat of the game. Here’s Kolb’s thought on the hexcrawl format:

“What I love about hex crawling is the clear structures. Routine stuff like traveling and exploring takes a set amount of time and it reinforces the consequences of player decisions. If they have two quests at opposite ends of the island and there’s a deadline on one but a better reward for the other, what are they going to choose?”  

“I also find that I do way less prep. Stories emerge from the encounters and encounters are rolled at the table. I don’t script events beyond knowing NPC motivations so if the players engage or not, there’s no monologue or epic battle that goes unused. If the group wants to confront Hook, they know where to look and it’ll happen when they take the initiative. In short, what I love about hexcrawling is the clear structures and shift in responsibility to the players. The GM is still going to have to build upon the random encounters, but they’re intentionally designed so that it requires very little work.”


 

If you enjoyed this feature, be sure to check out the video that Andrew did for us for the Virtual Tabletop Gaming Live 2020 show!


This feature originally appeared in Issue 50 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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